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Coronavirus
SNAP Stretch program restarts with additional funding

CHARLESTON — West Virginia officials announced on Friday that benefits through the Supplemental Nutritition Assistance Program (SNAP) can now be stretched again at farmers markets, farm stands, mobile markets and local food retailers statewide thanks to a $100,000 allocation of federal CARES Act funding to the “SNAP Stretch” program.

“I am absolutely tickled beyond belief to be able to provide the funding that’s needed to keep this crucial program going strong through the end of the year,” Gov. Jim Justice said in the announcement. “This pandemic has been tough on so many of our great people in so many ways. But, at the end of the day, I’ve always said that we’re always going to do everything in our power to make sure every West Virginian has food on the table. I’m very proud that we have this wonderful program that helps everyone access healthy and nutritious foods and I’m so happy to be able to lend a hand where it’s needed.”

The West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition, in partnership with the West Virginia Department of Agriculture, has been working to get more funding this year after the program ran out of money in August due to increased demand.

“This year was SNAP Stretch’s most successful, having utilized the entirety of funds available by the middle of the market season,” said Spencer Moss, executive director of the West Virginia Food & Farm Coalition. “The program put $158,000 into the local food economy and helped more 4,600 families gain access to locally produced food.”

SNAP Stretch first began in 2018. It allows individuals to literally stretch their amount of SNAP tokens through a 1-to-1 conversion. Whenever someone spends one SNAP dollar at a farmers market, with SNAP Stretch, they would receive another dollar to buy more fruits and vegetables with. Additionally, shoppers who were accompanied by a child received $2 instead of $1. While this extra money could exclusively be used on fruits and vegetables, it effectively doubled the spending power of customers at 42 farmers markets throughout the state.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was announced that SNAP Stretch’s benefits would be applied to eggs, meat and dairy through December 2020. This, combined with the distribution of Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) cards to more families and the surge of attention and participation in farmers markets brought on by the pandemic, led to the grant fund budget of $158,000 being depleted just halfway through the year.

Markets across the state were affected by this announcement, including Huntington’s Wild Ramp, a year-round nonprofit farmers market.

“It was a great thing for everyone involved,” Shelly Keeney, market director of the Wild Ramp, previously told The Herald-Dispatch about the SNAP Stretch program. “It brought extra attention to the market, got food to people who really needed it, and put money in the pockets of our producers and local farmers.”

Moss added that the pause of the program in August impacted both families and farmers who count on it.

“The pandemic has caused job and wage losses in many families, leaving them in need of extra support to help meet their basic needs,” Moss said. “SNAP Stretch helps address some of the effects of food insecurity that the pandemic has created or increased.”

Delegate Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, one of the founders of the West Virginia House Hunger Caucus, a bipartisan group from the West Virginia House of Delegates that addresses food insecurity issues throughout the state through legislation and policy, says this allocation of funds is something CARES Act funding was designed to do.

“Helping people who are struggling with hunger and food insecurities due to the COVID-19 pandemic is exactly what we should be doing,” he said. “The prevalence of hunger in West Virginia is largely underestimated. One out of every six West Virginians will face food insecurity at least once this year — that’s nearly 350,000 people, and there has been a great increase in that number due to the pandemic.”

Lovejoy said the SNAP Stretch program is a triple win for West Virginia.

“It gets access to food for those struggling with hunger, it helps West Virginia farmers and it keeps money circulating locally,” he said.

West Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Kent Leonhardt says the way you overcome a pandemic is with good nutrition.

“Now more than ever are our citizens relying on local producers for their food,” he said. “Supporting the expansion of the SNAP Stretch program not only helps feed our most vulnerable, but puts money straight back into our local economies.”

Moss added that if all of the $100,000 in additional funding is used by the end of the year, there would be discussions about the program’s 2021 budget.

“We expect this program to continue to grow, and if the pandemic continues into 2021, we expect to see a large need next year as well,” she said.

To learn more about SNAP Stretch, visit snapstretch.com.


News
WV childhood well-being slightly on decline before COVID-19 pandemic

CHARLESTON — West Virginia children are faring better in some small ways, but as a whole the well-being of the state’s youth is on a minor decline, according to the 2020 KIDS COUNT data book.

The national data book, released annually by the Anne E. Casey Foundation, uses 16 factors spread across health, family and community, economics and education to determine the well-being of children in each state. The report includes county-level data for all the national categories, as well as 10 additional factors — listed as emerging well-being indicators — specifically tailored to trends and issues in West Virginia.

This year’s report is based mostly on data from 2018, meaning the far-reaching effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are not considered in the findings.

“This was all pre-pandemic, so these numbers are not telling you what it’s like right now in West Virginia. That’s the big grain of salt in all of this,” said Sean O’Leary, a policy analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, who worked on the data and policy advisory committee for the 2020 WV KIDS COUNT data book. “Poverty will look a lot different this year. A lot will look different this year, I think.”

With that caveat, overall well-being for West Virginia’s children nationally dropped one place between 2019 and 2020, from 43 to 44. The state’s health ranking dropped from 31st in the nation in 2019 to 37th, and education rankings dropped one place, 43rd to 44th.

Family and community rankings were somewhat improved in 2020, coming in at 33rd in the nation compared to 34th, and the economic ranking stayed the same, at 48th, between the two years.

Overall, Putnam County is considered to have the highest overall child well-being in West Virginia, followed by Monongalia, Monroe, Mineral and Marion counties. McDowell is considered to have the worst, followed by Roane, Grant, Mercer and Logan counties.

While education is down as a whole, the data book suggests that more high schoolers are graduating on time — 90% according to the state Department of Education — and proficiency in fourth grade reading is slightly higher, with 70% of students proficient compared to previously 68%.

Data at the county level can be hard to pin down, as sample sizes can be very small, O’Leary said.

This is especially true for the emerging well-being indicators, which are specific to West Virginia and — depending on the subject — may be difficult to track and qualify without widespread study.

For example, the data book uses access to central fluoridated water as an emerging well-being indicator, however the data source only reports public water systems in its survey. So while the data book lists McDowell County as having 100% of children living with fluoridated water, it does not include information on the hundreds of children who live without access to a public water source or on potentially contaminated private wells, cisterns or springs.

O’Leary said it’s good to keep these caveats — which are listed and detailed at the beginning of the data book — in mind, but not to discredit the data as a whole.

“There are things to consider, and it’s not perfect, sure, but imperfect does not mean unuseful,” O’Leary said.

West Virginia saw a small decrease in the number of children living in poverty, with 87,000 in 2018 compared to 94,000 in the previous year’s estimates. Between the 2019 and 2020 studies, 27 counties in West Virginia saw improvements in their child poverty rates. McDowell County still lags, however, with nearly 43% of children living below the poverty line. Jefferson and Berkeley counties lead the state, with 11% and 16% of children respectively living in poverty.

Per the state data book, 2.8% of West Virginia children are considered homeless by county boards of education, compared to 2.4% the year before. Less than half the counties in West Virginia saw a decrease in the number of children experiencing homelessness compared to 2019, and coupled with increases in the number of children living with grandparents or in foster care over that same time, it’s clear that fewer of the state’s children are residing in stable home environments.

While, nationally, West Virginia saw the largest well-being change between 2019 and 2020 in health factors, overall the individual indicators used to determine the rank (babies born with a low birthweight, the number of uninsured children, child and teen deaths per 100,000 and the number of children and teens who are overweight or obese) remained consistent.

This means that while West Virginia may not have done anything worse between the two study periods, other states overwhelmingly did better, allowing them to rank higher while West Virginia dropped.

In a way, O’Leary said, that’s a reminder of why the data book can be so useful: it’s not just about seeing West Virginia’s improvements or weaknesses, but about seeing progress made compared to other states.

This information is meant to help inform policy decisions in West Virginia that would better the livelihood of children in the state. O’Leary, who works studying economic and related health trends for all populations in the state, said understanding policies affecting children is incredibly important, as the consequences of growing up in poverty can have lifelong impacts.

“When you think about children, that’s usually our most vulnerable population. … All these things associated with a child living in poverty will have long-term, life-time consequences,” O’Leary said. “If we look at these issues though, address them now, make those interventions, that action pays those dividends down the line. When you make investments now, they will pay themselves off in the future.”

While many key factors listed in the 2020 data book — like the number of children living with parents who lack secure employment — are bound to worsen as thousands in the state have grappled with lost jobs, health complications and housing difficulties amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the data can still be useful to help remember a baseline for West Virginia as pandemic recovery efforts continue.

“You can look and see, when we’re able to see data from this year, what our baseline was before. It can show you what direction West Virginia was moving in, what we were doing well in and already struggling with,” O’Leary said. “You can’t look at these indicators separately, one year to the next. You have to take into account the context and what is going on in the state at the time to learn from any of it.”

To view the entire 2020 WV KIDS COUNT data book as well as county-by-county profiles for all indicators, visit https://wvkidscount.org/


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Sholten Singer | The Herald-Dispatch Marshall linebacker Tavante Beckett is all smiles as the Herd defeats Western Kentucky during an NCAA football game on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, at Houchens-Smith Stadium in Bowling Green, Ky.


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Justice: 'Way premature' to lift state of emergency despite favorable risk map

CHARLESTON — Gov. Jim Justice said Monday it’s “way premature” to consider lifting a six-month-old state of emergency for the COVID-19 pandemic, even though the state’s color-coded risk assessment map currently shows 46 of the 55 counties are either lowest-risk green or low-risk yellow.

“We are nowhere close to lifting our state of emergency,” Justice said during the state COVID-19 briefing Monday. “We’ve got to stay as diligent as we possibly can. We’ve got to stay on our game.”

State law gives governors broad powers during states of emergency, including the ability to amend or rescind state rules and regulations; to assume procurement and appropriations authority; to suspend state laws; and to exercise all other powers and duties “necessary to promote and secure the safety and protection of the civilian population.”

The governor’s powers even extend to the authority to “suspend or limit the sale, dispensing or transportation of alcoholic beverages,” an authority Justice has exercised on two occasions during the pandemic to order all bars closed in Monongalia County.

It also gives Justice authority to order the wearing of face masks in public and commercial indoor settings, a power he referred to on Monday, saying, “I know everybody’s tired, and everybody’s sick and tired of wearing their masks.”

Justice declared a state of emergency regarding the COVID-19 pandemic on March 16. Twelve days earlier, he had declared a state of preparedness, which gives the governor the same broad powers as a state of emergency, but only for 30 days.

Asked Monday whether the state’s risk assessment map indicates the pandemic emergency has passed, Justice said, “We cannot drop our guard … As far as lifting this emergency thing, it’s way premature right now.”

The risk assessment map, which measures counties’ risk level by either infection rate or positivity rate — whichever is lower — on Monday showed 35 counties in green, indicating the virus has been contained. An additional 12 counties were yellow, indicating a low risk of transmission.

Only nine counties were red, orange or gold, denoting various levels of risk requiring varying levels of restrictions of public school activities.

In sharp contrast, the latest Harvard Global Health Services risk assessment map, using data from Saturday, had three counties in highest-risk red and 20 counties in high-risk orange.

The Harvard Global map, based on a rolling seven-day average of infections per 100,000 population, had no West Virginia counties in lowest-risk green on Monday, and had 32 counties in yellow.

Also during the COVID-19 briefing:

• Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president for health sciences at West Virginia University and state COVID-19 czar, cited a national news article and evidence from West Virginia’s public schools to state school classrooms are not COVID-19 super-spreader hot spots.

“What we’re finding is, around the country, the rate of transmission in schools is really, really low,” Marsh said, citing reported transmission rates of less than 1% among students, and less than 2% among teachers.

In West Virginia, he said there is no direct evidence of classroom spread of COVID-19, and said outbreaks in schools have been linked to outsiders and school sports.

“With the appropriate approaches being used in schools, it appears the classroom is a safe place to be,” he said.

As of Monday, the state Department of Education website lists outbreaks of two or more cases at 21 public schools, for a total of 62 cases.

• Justice veered into politics on a couple of occasions Monday, including blaming House Democrats for the ongoing congressional impasse on passage of a new COVID-19 economic stimulus package.

“It’s so ridiculous, it’s just off the charts,” Justice said of the impasse. “They want to call it politics, but it’s just children in a sandbox.”

The House of Representatives passed the stimulus package, known as the Heroes Act, on May 15, but the bill has languished in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate. President Donald Trump last Tuesday declared a halt to stimulus negotiations until after the Nov. 3 general election but has since pivoted in the face of bipartisan criticism.

Justice also commented on his upcoming gubernatorial debate Tuesday evening with Democratic challenger Ben Salango, saying he hopes it doesn’t turn into “a food fight or a spectacle.”

“I hope it is respectable and educational for our voters,” Justice said, adding that he has not done much preparation for the statewide televised debate, noting, “I’ll think about it between now and tomorrow.”